Sewing: practical source of zany kids' clothes, or more labor of love?
December 27, 2018 2:12 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering buying a sewing machine, perhaps the Singer 4423 that Wirecutter likes, for making kids' clothing. Am I underestimating the difficulty involved? And/or, will my endless quest for affordable tall slim-fit clothes in bright/bold prints merely turn into an endless quest for affordable knit fabrics in bright/bold prints?

My child's style is basically Ms. Frizzle Jr. with a side of andro Toddler-Grandma. As they keep getting taller without getting any wider, it's getting more difficult to find suitable items, particularly pants. (After all, dresses one has grown too tall for are called "shirts," I've learned.) How realistic is it to think that I could buy a basic sewing machine and just make stuff myself? (Would the one linked above be a good choice?) My hope would be to ultimately produce basic things (size ~4T/XS currently) for perhaps $10/piece in materials and in under an hour or so without rushing, after some initial learning period of course. However, I don't have a strong sense of whether that's realistic. These don't need to be beautiful works of art, but they should be comfortable and reasonably durable. It's possible that I need to/might as well keep giving other people money to achieve that, and that's okay, but if it'd be easy enough to launch off on my own, I think I'd rather take that route.

When I've tried to use sewing machines before, admittedly a long time ago now, it was a mess, bobbin thread jammed everywhere and tension disasters every few yards that I then spent twice as long ripping out. Generally I've just taken care of my sewing needs (Halloween costumes, mostly, over the years, some 18" doll clothes, and taking in waists/adding longer cuffs for the kid lately) by hand, but it's rough on my wrist. Meanwhile, I understand that other people use machines with great success. Did I just need to keep plowing through to learn from my mistakes? Leggings/grow-with-me pants, even simple dresses, look so straightforward that it seems like this should be something I can do. But I really don't want to throw $150+ at getting a machine and supplies only to decide that it's too much hassle to reach even the break-even point. And I have no interest in making quilts, crafts in general, etc. Just light-to-midweight kids' stuff. Does that seem a reasonable project to be taking on as someone who isn't really into the idea of sewing as a hobby? And if so, any hints on where might I find a central source or two for fun prints on decent fabric?
posted by teremala to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think being a parent with a working sewing machine is basically a good idea. The price of that machine is good, it will probably meet most of your needs. The problem with cheap machines is that when they do start to go wrong, it can be difficult to understand or fix why, but if you're not a heavy user that might not be for a while. And sometimes they lack one basic function that you need but didn't know you needed. Do get the accessory kit though, because you'll want the walking foot to work with knits (or you could get a walking foot separately, but you might end up wanting the other feet). Since you've had some issues in the past, you might benefit from a basic, get to know the machine class, and/or a basic primer on sewing with knits.

I think this: "$10/piece in materials and in under an hour or so without rushing" may be...ambitious. Quality fabrics, even knits, are a bit more costly that you might expect. You may want to buy some patterns (though you can get some free or learn to draft from existing clothing). And you will want to use quality fabrics if you're investing the time. In reality, laying out fabric, cutting, sewing, finishing, it all takes time. If you're not really confident, I'd guess you're talking more like half-day's work (4-6 hrs) for most things, and I would be thinking more like $15 in fabric, though you can definitely get stuff on sale, just maybe not what you like as much.

However, you may also find that with your machine you can modify existing commercial clothing to make them slimmer or to extend the life of existing garment by adding to the bottom of pants/shirts/dresses and you might find that rewarding and cost effective. Also, sewing knits is a little more fussy overall but the results are so much more forgiving, and kids clothing is generally more forgiving as well.

You might consider getting your machine at Costco because of their generous return policy. Perhaps this one. That way, if you find that you still can't make it work. Or it sits in the box for a year, you can bring it back.
posted by vunder at 2:39 PM on December 27, 2018 [9 favorites]

So, great idea for wanting to sew for your kids! And you did a bang-up job of selecting a model that will do everything you need but isn't too expensive. Seriously, I have responded to other questions where the new sewist wanted to buy a $1500 model and I'm like, "Before you spend that much money, make sure you like sewing!" That Singer should keep you happy for a year or more-- possibly forever.

After buying the machine, thread, notions and a pattern, you could test out your theory for less than $200. That is not bad. What might be even better is to try and take a sewing class first. I found one at my local university, although they are often offered at fabric stores as well. Try to get connected to the local sewing community first-- they are the people you go to when your bobbin explodes, who know the secret fixes from decades of experience. And, after you have taken a class, you can figure out if you actually enjoying making your kids' clothes.

As far as fabrics, my best finds have just scouting out all the bins at local fabric stores. There are definitely fabrics there to meet your style requirements-- I made a set of pajamas from a beautiful 1950's style fabric with cowboys and horses on it.

Don't forget there are many older sewing patterns online for free because they are now in the public domain. I haven't used any myself, but I know they are out there.

On preview-- seconding what vunder wrote-- it takes a lot of time to make clothes, particularly when you are starting out. Those pajama bottoms were more like ten hours to make, not one. But I thought it was worth it!
posted by seasparrow at 2:46 PM on December 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Came here to say: no, not $10 under an hour. Probably $20+ and 3 hours. And pants are indeed tricky, it might take you a while at first to draft and measure and adjust and adjust again and fit everything to your kids.

That machine looks good, and vunder's comments are spot on. One thing to keep in mind: things like tension disasters and bobbins and figuring out which of seven different needles you should use are a never-ending thing. You'll always be fighting with the machine, although if you stick to one type of knit fabric it'll be a little easier. But reading complex directions, studying unhelpful illustrations, wondering why your fabric is still sliding despite the specialty foot, all of these things happen constantly and are mentally taxing; only you can decide whether you have the patience for these little aggravations.

As for fabric: Mood is the best, though on the expensive side, for all types of quality. Online places like are pretty good, Jo-Ann's is fun to browse in but their fabric is lower quality and can pill up after one washing.

Good luck!
posted by Melismata at 2:55 PM on December 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I spent 2 hours this weekend sewing a one-yard grocery bag out of a remnant I already had--so your time/budget for your items is off. Sewing requires a lot of patience and a lot of problem-solving, as others have already mentioned.

It will almost certainly not be cheaper than buying clothes--good quality knits tend to be in the $15/yard range, and your kiddo will probably require around 1-1.5 yards for a garment now (and more as they grow).

All that said, I find it really satisfying to come away with a garment someone can actually wear that is really personalized to them. My favorite place for light-weight cotton prints and knits is Harts Fabric--they are an independent shop but ship all over.
posted by assenav at 3:12 PM on December 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I was you once. I determined that the time and cost involved was not worth it compared to buying clothes for children, especially preschoolers that grow out of things in a season or two.
As others have said, it can be a full day of work to sew one item. And fabric is pretty expensive, especially stretchy fabric for leggings.

It can be fun to make baby blankets or an occasional dress that can be used as a shirt later but I don't know if it is practical to make regular clothes.
posted by k8t at 3:35 PM on December 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Some things I have learned to check when machine sewing goes wrong:
Is the bobbin thread coming off in the right direction?
Is the needle dull or damaged? Change it often. In fact, I put the date changed on a post-it on the machine.
Clean out around the bobbin and feed dog.
Is the stitch length appropriate?
It's almost never the tension.
Also, the first time I do a project in any craft it takes forever but it goes much faster with practice.
I didn't sew everyday clothes for my daughter but lots of costumes and dress up clothes.
posted by Botanizer at 3:46 PM on December 27, 2018

Ok, I agree with the others above. Your price point/time frame are not realistic. But, it is possible to thrift fabric, either as yard goods, or repurposed clothing that is taken apart and sewn into something else. Very large knit skirts can yield a surprising amount of fabric. Pretty flat sheets, same thing. The time aspect is more complicated. Once you get a few simple patterns sewn, so that you know how to assemble them, and what the tricky parts are, you can whip them up reasonably fast. Remember, there is pinning, cutting, and a myriad of other steps involved. But, it can be done, and is really satisfying!
posted by LaBellaStella at 3:53 PM on December 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Re the sewing machine specifically, I have that model and love it. The repair guy at the sewing shop loves it too - I’ve brought it in for service twice and he has commented both times that it is an impressive machine for the price point.

When threading the machine make ABSOLUTELY sure you get the thread through the hooky thing at the top/front and that it doesn’t slide back. That’s my #1 error with this machine.

I think everyone else is spot on with their time / cost analysis but don’t underestimate the power of having a machine to do quick alterations. I’ve shortened / taken in (roughly because idk what I’m doing mostly) dresses for my daughter and niece very handily with the machine you linked.
posted by kellygrape at 3:59 PM on December 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm an experienced quilter and hobbyist sewer and made most of my clothes in high school, but I have found that sewing clothes for my lanky, slim kids is not a good use of my time. Knits can be challenging to work with, especially for a beginner. I also found that many patterns have the same fit problems that commercial clothing does - in other words it required a lot more alteration than I was prepared to do.

Others have addressed that your time and money savings estimates are way off. I think this could still be a fun project for you if you are interested in learning to sew, but I wouldn't expect to replace clothes buying with clothes making.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 4:16 PM on December 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

Thank you all. This has brought a lot of clarity. I hope I didn't offend anyone with my guesses on time/expenses; they were just meant to represent the approximate point at which this would seem worth it to me versus continuing to search for ready-made options. It's good to know that I was so far off in both directions, especially since I'd imagined that I would be indulging a lot to spend $25-30/piece through Etsy, whereas it now seems quite the bargain if that's the sort of thing I'm looking for. I had figured it takes me hours to make anything because I'm always sewing by hand and with carpal tunnel issues at that, not because that's just literally how long it takes! I'm also gratified to hear that machines and fabric are indeed finicky, because I feel like it has always looked so easy when I've watched, but then I just messed everything up the second I touched the thing.
posted by teremala at 6:06 PM on December 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

It depends on a few things - just how precisely tailored do you want the clothes looking, and can you adjust a simple pattern yourself, and are you prepared to spend some time shopping?

There are a few fabric stores that have a discount wall, and if your child likes vivid splashy print knits you can find them there. They will generally be so-so quality, to bad quality, but if your kid is growing like a weed you may not want durable fabric. Before investing in the sewing machine, check for the fabric. If you can't source it your idea is a bust. If you can find the right kind of discount wall, you may want to go there frequently to check if there is any new fabric in that would work for you and your kid, and there may not be the fabric you want, when you want it.

Serious sewers usually end up wanting a serger to finish the edges. But if you merely want to make a bunch of kids' clothes that your kid will like, that will fit better than are in the stores and last for a season or so, you don't need to finish the edges. Often the edges of knits will just roll themselves and not unravel. You could learn to recognize which knits are like this. You'd still have to learn.

There are a ton of simple patterns that you can draft yourself after measuring your kid. This are things like a simple straight skirt with an elastic waist, or harem pants, or a poofy shirt. Rather than set in sleeves you might do only raglan sleeves. These are not fitted garments but they are comfortable garments. They won't necessarily look that much like things bought in a store but they can be very cute and if your child continues to feel confident and happy looking different you can learn to run up one of these garments an evening. However it will take practice to get them down to two hours and you may never get them down to one hour. If you are determined to get them down to one hour you can do that, but you will have to learn to sew in a slapdash fashion, never using pins, only doing minimal matching.

Most garments will continue to take rather more than an hour. It's only certain patterns that can be gotten down to that short a time.

There are also patterns that are advertised as being quick. Sometimes they are found in a line named something like "Two Hour Patterns." Look at some of those and decide if they are styles that your child would appreciate. If they are not, then it's a no go.

Look for a tool lending library in your area and see if you can borrow a sewing machine, or see if you have a friend who will loan one to you, and make a couple of garments with that before you invest in a sewing machine. I think you can do this - but it will really depend on your ability to learn the craft. What is most important is if you will enjoy doing it. If you make your kid a skirt and a night gown and a vest and your kid is thrilled and his friends are jealous and you are having a ball, then invest in the sewing machine. But if the first three garments take you thirty seven hours, most of which is spent swearing at the bobbin and trying to put it back in again, then you will know this is not for you.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:15 PM on December 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

As an alternative to sewing, I would consider something like YesStyle, which specializes in Korean sizing. Tall skinny kid describes my nephew perfectly, and he was able to find a wide variety of clothing which looked good and fit impossibly skinny him.
posted by blob at 7:20 PM on December 27, 2018

When you sew clothes yourself, they generally won't be cheaper than a comparable store-bought item. However, if you take your time and do a good job, you can get something that's better fitted and finished than what you'd find in a store. Personally, as a home sewist, I save money on mending, not making -- if I can get another six or twelve months out of a worn piece of clothing, that's where the hobby pays for itself. Sewing for a fast-growing kid, especially one who is picky about their clothing, does not seem like a good way to save money.

Remember to factor in the extra time and fabric you'll be using (and throwing away) as you learn and improve -- in my first months back to sewing as an adult, probably 2/3 of the projects I worked on ended up being unwearable. It took a while before I could reliably produce what I intended to (and I still make a stinker every so often). Overall, I'd recommend not getting into sewing unless you think you'll actually enjoy the process, frustrations and all. Different people get different things out of it -- for some it's a fun puzzle, for others an artistic outlet, and for still others a relaxing habit. If you have a reason to enjoy it, it's worth doing. If not, don't. You'll never be able to make clothing as cheaply or as quickly as the manufacturers.

If you want to give it a try without a huge upfront investment, I'd second the recommendation to look for a library with sewing machines to borrow or use on-site. Some places even have volunteers and free classes to help you learn -- like this, for example. There may be a similar program in your area. YouTube is an incredible resource, too -- for any given sewing technique or problem, you can find hundreds of tutorial videos.

I'd suggest looking for stores that sell reclaimed or reused fabric -- you can often get it at a substantial discount, and they may have classes, used sewing machines for sale, a cool community, etc. You can also go to your local thrift shop and look for bedsheets or lengths of fabric -- you can sometimes find substantial yardage for under a dollar (no guarantees on color/pattern, but that's fine for practice fabric). It's great to use cheap fabric while you're learning, so you don't feel quite so bad when a project doesn't work out.
posted by ourobouros at 8:23 PM on December 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

Consider your child as well. I will not sew for my youngest, only her dolls as they do not complain at length about my sewing, fabric choices and design decisions. Very happy if I knit for her, but no sewn clothes. I do not buy clothes for her either but pay for what she has chosen.

I thrifted material for other clothes from handmedown outfits and was able to source of cuts and random bits of fabric for projects but storage space for fabric is a huge hassle if you live in a small space.

If this is about your kid's style vs available fashion think alterations and customising, which is more trimmings and retouching. Mine has been happy so far with license to cut, fabric glue patches and add ribbons and pompoms. Fabric pens and beads for plain tops and pants go a long way.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 12:24 AM on December 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I do know several people who can make good plain garments in less than two hours but they have all spent a lot of time sewing. All of them spent years sewing in all their available time, very much like learning a musical instrument, so they have brains in their hands for their machines and for the fabric. ... Would your kid like to sew?

Come to think of it, one of them is a small adult who saves money by thrifting clothes for fabric and cutting her pattern pieces out of the original clothes. But she's been doing that a while and has an *eye*. (And no money. You know what doesn't pay very well? Custom sewing.)

If all you wanted was to make knit-fabric clothes, the logical advice is to get a 4 or 5 thread serger and do all the construction on that; they're really fast. But sergers are more complicated than sewing machines, or way way more expensive, or both, so unless you have a local store that will teach you some classes on class machines before you buy one, it's a big request. (Sergers can also sew *some* seams on woven fabrics, but only some.)
posted by clew at 12:29 AM on December 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty new to sewing garments, but I actually think your estimation of sewing a simple pair of leggings in an hour is do-able once you've sewn a couple and understand how it works. One thing that's really helped me improve is that I've joined a Facebook group for people who show off/ask questions about a particular children's pattern company. The patterns I've been using- with great success- are from Brindille & Twig. While the patterns themselves are great, following the Facebook group has helped me learn about pattern tweaking. For instance, how to adjust the sizing for a smaller waist/longer legs. I've also been enjoying "mashing" patterns. For example, making a standard legging but instead of an elastic waistband changing it to a yoga-style waist.
posted by shornco at 8:57 AM on December 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Take a look at these sew-alongs for a knit tee and woven pajama pants. If those steps look approachable to you, then I say go for it! As others have mentioned, a sewing machine is a useful tool to have around, even if you don't see sewing as a hobby.

Start with a standard sewing machine with a zigzag stitch. I have sewn many satisfactory adult-sized knit garments on my Brother CS6000i. (Sergers are definitely faster, but more intimidating and with a steeper learning curve.)

Cotton jersey is easier to work with, as long as it has some heft. It stays where you put it and doesn't shift around like drapier fabrics. I like Kaufman Laguna jersey, available in solid colors and prints. Art Gallery and Cotton+Steel also have some fun prints and are available online. Fabric Fairy and Girl Charlee have loads of fun cotton knits. And as others have mentioned, fabric can be found at thrift stores, and you can thrift and cut down larger garments.

I don't sew for kids and I don't have a one-stop resource roundup at my fingertips, but I have come across indie pattern companies offering free PDF patterns for kids (Love Notions, 5 out of 4 pinned post with promo codes) and also tutorials for making your own patterns (It's Always Autumn blog). The indie pattern companies often have active online groups where people help each other out.

Finally, consider investing in a large self-healing cutting mat and rotary cutter. This will dramatically reduce the time needed to cut out your projects since you just place the pattern on the fabric, hold it down with pattern weights or canned tomatoes or whatever, and whiz around the paper with the rotary cutter. Much faster than pinning the pattern to the fabric and cutting with scissors!
posted by esoterrica at 12:45 PM on December 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

Seconding indie patterns, including Love Notions, Jalie and Patterns for Pirates.
Don't get too tied up in knots over needles, use a ballpoint or tricot needle for knits and a size 11 for woven fabrics, and regular polyester thread. If you are just practicing, start with fabric from thrift stores, or cut up used clothes.
posted by Enid Lareg at 5:39 PM on December 28, 2018

I think the answers you're getting are mostly realistic, except that you're talking leggings. For a while, I made all my kid's pants. I was making simple, pull-on woven pants or leggings. I would spend a couple of afternoons whacking out half a dozen pairs. This is what that looked like:
1) Shop online with my kid for fabric he would actually wear, once he developed a strong opinion.
2) When the fabric arrived, wash it, re-measure the kid, and prep the pattern -- usually tracing off of a master pattern.
3) Cut out half a dozen pairs of pants.
4) Batch sew! I would do all of one kind of seam for each pair of pants, chain piecing style.
5) More detailed finishing -- turning over the waistbands and cuff hems is when I'd get picky about thread color-matching.

Voila! It's tedious sewing, IMO, but I found it satisfying to have clothes that actually fit my child and that he enjoyed wearing. It generally cost <$10/pair for materials; this doesn't include the cost for my time. That being said, I'm low on time these days, and my kid now fulfills his toddler grandma style preferences using the $5 leggings in the Target girls' section.
posted by linettasky at 8:07 PM on December 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Update: I so wanted to take the advice to borrow a machine, but the lending library doesn't have one and everyone I know locally who sews is so serious about it that I was worried that I'd break something expensive, so I went for it with a refurbished listing of that Singer with a good return policy. Turns out, those who pointed at the ease of making leggings were 100% correct: even with the three-year-old's help, I can totally do a pair of these in an hour, and it's only 3/4 a yard at their current size (not sure why that pattern says 1+, but it also claims they're only for girls, so pfft). Way, way, easier than piecing together pants for an adult; more like the next step up from "pillowcase."

Given that it'd been so long since I used a machine, and that I never really felt like I understood what I was doing even at the time, I'd assumed I would be starting from scratch there, but it turns out I actually remember quite a lot of the mechanics of it. Having both the user manual and the Internet for reference also really makes a difference in figuring out which bits do what. For now at least, the ease of finding prints that make the little one genuinely happy is a massive improvement over scrounging through retail shelves for merely "okay" options. Shirts we're currently set on, and there tend to be better options there anyway, but we also made a skirt from 1/4 yard of a totally ridiculous fuzzy fabric that'd been clearanced to $6/yard that was, if anything, even easier than the leggings by virtue of just being a rectangle with elastic at the waist and some free-hand pockets sewn on the front. I'm sure everyone who said things would take way longer is correct regarding garments with higher production values, but for now we're both happy with "good enough."

("Would your kid like to sew?" Ooh, yes, they would indeed, but they're also three. ;) For now, they pin the pattern, wind bobbin, and raise/lower the foot upon request. Hopefully if they eventually start to feel self-conscious about homemade stuff, they'll also be ready to take over production. (I am of course in denial that they might ever grow out of loving prints.))
posted by teremala at 10:05 AM on January 6 [3 favorites]

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